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A decades-old murder mystery in Saginaw

Was a Michigan newlywed guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend on his honeymoon? How forensic evidence played into the case
/ Source: Dateline NBC

On the shores of Lake Huron, in a picture-postcard town, in the home of a prominent family, two newlyweds were celebrating their honeymoon.

But a secret unknown both would soon haunt a city, police detectives, and families for decades.

It was the summer of 1974.

Patty Hearst had just been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Watergate scandal was near its peak.

And an hour’s drive from that lakefront honeymoon cottage, in the gritty factory town of Saginaw, Michigan lived a beautiful young woman named Cheryl Miller. She was 21, popular, and she had her own motorbike. She’d just moved into an apartment with a roommate, and worked part-time at a bakery to make ends meet while attending college art classes.

Donna Duquette, Cheryl Miller's aunt, remembered Cheryl as a caring and considerate person. "I thought she was the perfect person," says Duquette. "She had all the qualities that I think that most people wish they had. She was a shining star."

But on a rainy Saturday morning, Cheryl Miller’s roommate returned to this home from a night of partying to find Miller murdered. An autopsy would conclude that she had been raped and strangled. Time of death was between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

For Cheryl's family, it was painful and unimaginable. "I felt like somebody had just shot me with a scatter gun in the stomach," says Duquette.

Now-retired Police Detectives Ron Herzberg and Tom Reeder worked the case.

In the days after the murder, a clear picture of a suspect emerged: An exchange student from Iran, a former boyfriend named Abbass Esfehani.

Ron Herzberg, Saginaw police detective: The first thing you think of is, of course, probably someone that knows her. We interviewed the parents, and they’d had a conversation with their daughter a couple days before this homicide that she did not want to see him anymore, and that she was scared of him because of his temper.

Two critical pieces of evidence linked Esfehani to the crime scene: his fingerprint on a rail leading upstairs to the room where the body was found, and dark hairs left on Cheryl Miller’s body... judged to be similar to those found on a hairbrush belonging to Esfehani.

However, Saginaw police never got the chance to interview Esfehani. Days after Cheryl Miller’s murder, Esfehani had sold his car, left many of his belongings in Saginaw, and a week ahead of schedule, got on an airplane in Detroit and flew home to Iran. A warrant was issued; Esfehani was arrested. Although he denied committing the murder, hair samples were sent from Iran to Michigan.

The hair samples said to come from Esfehani sent by the Iranian police were examined and found not to be similar to the hairs found on the victim’s body. But something strange was going on— because the hairs said to be Esfehani’s did not even match the hairs taken from his own hairbrush, left behind in his hasty departure from Michigan.

Hansen: Did that seem fishy to you?Herzberg: I would’ve rather been there when the hair samples were taken from Mr. Esfehani. But when he’s in Iran and we’re here, you do the best you can.

Because the hairs didn’t match, and police had little other evidence against him, five months after Cheryl Miller’s murder, Abbass Esfehani was no longer considered the prime suspect by authorities. He never returned to the United States.

It was, according to Detective Herzberg, "very frustrating." "To actually have him probably would have shortened the investigation quite a bit."

During the next two years, Saginaw Police would offer rewards for tips on the Miller murder case. They’d question more than 150 people. And the list of past and present suspects would expand to three: in addition to Esfehani, Antonio Alverez, a cousin of the victim’s roommate. He’d lived at the house for a time. And the dark hairs found on the body were also found to be similar to his hair.

Newly-wed Gabriel Ferris
Then there was suspect number three, Gabriel Ferris. 27-year old Gabriel Ferris had come from a well-to-do family in Saginaw, but had spent time in prison on drug charges. Ferris had dated the victim. 

Detective Reeder met with Ferris several times. And something about the guy didn’t seem right. His instincts told him Ferris was nervous, which made him really suspicious of him.

Although he didn’t have dark hair similar to what was found on the victim’s body, other pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit. Ferris admitted having a sexual relationship with Cheryl Miller, up to the week before her murder. And police found Ferris’s fingerprints on a dresser near Cheryl Miller’s body.

Still, Ferris seemed to have an alibi as solid as any imaginable: He said the night of the murder, he was 65 miles away in a cottage by Lake Huron, celebrating the first night of his honeymoon, making love to his new wife.

According to Detective Reeder, he went to the prosecutor with all of his evidence and laid out the whole case. "He said, 'Bring me one more piece of evidence that we can come up with and we will definitely issue a warrant. Just give me one more piece,'" says Reeder. He was unable to find that one extra piece of evidence.

Cheryl Miller’s murder would soon enter the cold case files. And it would stay there, for nearly two decades until 1994, when police detectives in Saginaw reopened the case. They quickly zeroed in on a suspect. It was not Abbass Esfehani or Tony Alverez… but the man who seemingly had a rock-solid alibi, the man who was on his honeymoon, Gabriel Ferris.

Hansen: Give me a sense for the relief that the family felt when  there was an arrest in the case finally after 20 years?Duquette: It gave me a certain amount of peace I can tell you that. I think it did my sister. We didn’t know it at the time but she was already sick…Hansen: Your sister sadly died of cancer. Do you think she was more at peace because when she died she knew there had been an arrest?Duquette: Oh yes.

The arrest of Gabriel Ferris would begin a strange trip through Michigan’s justice system that’s still going on today.

Gabriel Ferris sat stoically as his murder trial began in Saginaw, Michigan in 2004. No longer a carefree hippie in his 20s, the 55-year old was facing a trial that could send him to prison for life. He was an accused killer, whom police believe had gotten away with Cheryl Miller's murder for decades.

The years had taken a toll on Cheryl’s family; Her mother and father were now dead. But her Aunt Donna felt a duty to be in court every day.

For proscutoring attorney Michael Thomas and assistant prosecutor Jeff Stroud, this was a difficult case from the beginning. The two were mere teenagers when the decades-old murders took place.

And when Ferris’s trial began, it quickly became clear why police had focused on him.

First, the state called the detective who was credited with cracking the cold case. Retired Saginaw Police Detective Roy Walton took the stand. He’s the one who re-opened the case in 1994, 20 years after the murder, and zeroed in on Ferris as a suspect.

On the witness stand, Walton said that in his conversation with Ferris about Cheryl Miller’s death, Ferris said that “she was just one of five girls he was f*ng at that time.”

Statements made to witnesses
Prosecutors were trying to portray Ferris as cold-hearted. And they would next present a parade of witnesses who said that in the years since the crime, Ferris had a habit of making odd and incriminating statements about the murder, like the one heard by one of Ferris’s former roommates. The jury also heard from a jailhouse snitch, who said Ferris had confessed to him.

And prosecutors called an ex-girlfriend who said Ferris had made strange statements while riding in a car in 1976, two years after Cheryl Miller was killed. The statement, according to the ex-girlfriend was "I didn't mean to do it... didn't mean to do it."

Ferris may have been his own worst enemy. "He told enough people enough things to allow us to present evidence that would be corroborated in his own words," says Stroud. "That he was, in fact the best evidence against him."

But what physical evidence was there to back up those claims? How could prosecutors prove to the jury that Ferris was the man who on June 15th, 1974, was in Cheryl Miller’s bedroom, with his hands around her neck, squeezing the last breaths from her dying body?

Fingerprints on a dresser
The prosecution used a dummy to demonstrate for the jury evidence that it said would conclusively link Ferris to the murder.

Remember, two of Ferris’s fingerprints were found on a dresser in the victim’s room. But the state argued that it was the position of those prints— just inches from the victim’s head that was key. The prosecutor used a police officer to show the jury that the prints could only have been left by a man who was committing murder.

Bloodstains and no alibi
Finally, after presenting what the state said was strong physical evidence proving Ferris was the killer, prosecutors called to the stand the one woman whose testimony was crucial to the case: Terri Igaz, Ferris’ former wife.

She’s the woman Ferris was honeymooning with on the shores of Lake Huron, the night of the murder. But she took the stand not to defend her now ex-husband, but as another woman wronged by Ferris.

Igaz testified that as the sun was coming up that morning, she saw Gabriel Ferris returning to their honeymoon cottage.

She said that Ferris slammed the door into the house, was coming up the stairs, and had blood on his clothes. His excuse, says Igaz, was that he hit a rabbit with the car, and it got stuck in the wheel well so he had to pull it out.

Ferris’s ex-wife testified that same night in their honeymoon cottage, Ferris turned on the 11 o’clock news.

Igaz: he got up real close to the television and when it was talking about Cheryl Miller, he was touching the television and making noises like he was crying, but he wasn’t crying. He was pretend crying. He told me that was the last girlfriend he’d had before me.Q: Did he tell you that he was still dating her?Igaz: No.Q: Did he tell you that he had a date with her the night before your wedding?Igaz: No.

And that prosecutors would claim, was the motive behind the murder. Because it turns out that Gabriel Ferris had set up a date with Cheryl Miller the night before his wedding— his so-called ‘stag night’— apparently to have sex with her once more before becoming a married man. But Ferris later told police that his wife-to-be had kept such a close eye on him that night that he couldn’t get away to see his girlfriend.

So, prosecutors theorized, Ferris decided to see Cheryl Miller at his very next opportunity—which turned out to be the first night of his honeymoon… the last night of her life.

"This seems to be the classic love triangle case," says Stroud. "The supposition was that he left the honeymoon to go meet and make up with Cheryl Miller. Did he go there intending to rape her? Probably not. He may have gone there very well intending to have sex with her and she said, ‘Look it, you’re married, I’m not having sex with you’ and that angered him and an argument ensued and he ended up strangling her."

And finally, to show that Ferris had a propensity for choking and beating women, his ex-wife testified that he had more than once done the same to her, although he denied it.

Prosecutors rested their case, confident that they’d proven Gabriel Ferris had the means, motive, and— thanks to his ex-wife’s testimony— the opportunity to kill Cheryl Miller.

The defense would now get the chance it had been waiting for: to prove that the evidence pointed not to Ferris, but to another killer still on the loose.

Gabriel Ferris had spent six days in a Michigan courtroom, listening to the state label him a scoundrel, a cheating husband who’d lied to his new wife in 1974— who slipped out of his honeymoon bed in a cottage on the shores of scenic Lake Huron to drive an hour for one final rendezvous with Cheryl Miller, a visit, they said, that ended in murder.

But it turns out that there is much more to the story of Gabriel Ferris than what prosecutors told.

In fact, this was the third time that Ferris had been tried for the murder of Cheryl Miller. In the previous trials there’d been one hung jury, and one conviction later tossed out.

And Michigan’s Court of Appeals had come down hard on the Saginaw authorities who’d prosecuted Ferris— even ruling that prosecutors once allowed a jailhouse snitch to testify falsely that he didn’t expect a deal in exchange for his testimony against Ferris.

Attorney David Nickola, and law professor David Moran are among those who’ve represented Ferris during his odyssey through Michigan’s justice system.  According to Nicokla, it was a "trifecta of injustice." "There was the judge, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel."

Hansen: How would you characterize this case to somebody who is totally unfamiliar with the twists and turns?Law professor David Moran: The prosecution theory that somebody on their honeymoon night for no apparent reason, sneaks out and rapes and kills an ex-girlfriend is so strange, that I thought there’s got to be more to this story. It doesn’t make any sense.

Now, Ferris had another chance to convince a jury of his innocence. And new trial attorney Dan Willman believed the jury could only conclude that Ferris was not guilty.

A lack of physical evidence
There was hardly any physical evidence linking Gabe Ferris to the crime scene. There was none of his semen, blood, hair, or skin tissue. It was a weak case, the defense argued, even though Gabriel Ferris’s fingerprint was found on a dresser just a few inches from the victim’s head.

Ferris claimed he and Cheryl Miller had sex all over the bedroom. And fingerprint analysts were forced to admit, they couldn’t prove the prints were left the night of the murder.

Other potential suspects
The defense argument was simple: there was far less reason to believe that Ferris had committed the murder, and more reason to believe someone else had done it.

First, the defense brought up the original suspect, Abbass Esfehani. You’ll recall he was the victim’s former boyfriend, described as hot-tempered, who made a hasty return to Iran in the days after the murder. Esfehani’s fingerprints were found on the banister leading up to the murder scene.

And the exchange student’s former roommate remembered a strange reaction when Esfehani discussed Cheryl Miller’s death. Defense attorney Nickola theorizes that Esfehani was a jilted lover, and that could have caused him to lash out. "Miss Miller was not only beautiful but she was very bold. And Mr. Esfehani was from a country culturally where men generally dominated and manipulated women. And Ms. Miller dumped Mr. Esfehani," says Nickola. "And I don’t believe he could take it. He was a jilted lover. And that has all the ingredients for the recipe of murder."

Next, remember the second suspect police had focused on?

Tony Alverez was the cousin of the victim’s roommate. Like Ferris, he was older, and perhaps grayer, but still 30 years later, answering question about the case. After all, he’d been in the house many times. And prosecutors now admitted the dark hairs found on the victim’s body, belonged to him.

It turned out that the hairs weren’t the only piece of evidence linking Alverez to the murder.

After pointing to other viable suspects, the defense was about to drop a bombshell. Because it turns out that when the physical evidence was gathered from the crime scene 30 years ago, and detectives began following leads, those dark hairs on the victim’s body weren’t the only crucial pieces of evidence that pointed away from Gabriel Ferris. The medical examiner also found something highly unusual, left behind, he believed, by the man who raped and murdered Cheryl Miller.

Moran: He told the two detectives that he found a large quantity of semen, and what was remarkable was not finding sperm.Hansen: Indicating that whoever raped Cheryl Miller was sterile.Moran: Right.

It was true:  Police and medical reports said whoever raped and murdered Cheryl Miller was sterile; and for years detectives pursued that lead, looking for a sterile killer.

Hansen: You had Ferris tested?Moran: We did. And the test results came back that he had a normal sperm count.Hansen: Could a person with a normal sperm count have raped Cheryl Miller?Moran: Almost impossible.

And the defense moved to bolster this stunning evidence by calling one of the nation’s leading experts on male reproduction  to back up the claim that Ferris could not be the killer.

Hansen: The original medical examiner had concluded that whoever raped Cheryl Miller was sterile.Stroud: The problem with that turned out to be, Abbass Esfehani is not sterile. Tony Alverez is not sterile. Gabe Ferris is not sterile, so even of the pool of suspects that the defense argued could have committed this crime, none of them were sterile.Hansen: Maybe none of them committed the crime?Stroud: Well there’s always, I suppose, that possibility and again if you take just that single piece of evidence you can create whatever doubt you wish to create.

The defense was focused on presenting hard physical evidence to show the jury that Gabriel Ferris could not be the killer; what it said were hairs and semen that didn’t come from Ferris. And the defense argued the state had a shaky case, based on two old fingerprints, circumstantial evidence, and witnesses whose stories had changed over three decades.

And the defense argued the case never would have gone to trial had it not been for one man.

Roy Walton, the retired Saginaw Police Detective who’d reopened the cold case in 1994, 20 years after the murder and quickly zeroed in on Ferris as a suspect.

The defense pointed out that Walton didn’t follow up on crucial evidence that could’ve led to other suspects.

Next, the defense argued, that if the jury couldn’t believe the detective’s word, neither could it believe the witnesses he turned up — including the latest jailhouse snitch who claimed Ferris confessed to him.

And the defense claimed equally unbelievable was the ex-girlfriend who’d testified that Ferris had said he "didn’t mean to do it." Another man present during the conversation, contradicted her.

The defense was set to wrap up its case, asking the jury a simple question: Did it make sense that Gabriel Ferris would, on the first night of his honeymoon, make love to his new wife, then sneak out of the house, and drive 65 miles to visit a former girlfriend? A woman he was now accused of killing?

And further, did he have time that night to commit the crime? After all, Ferris’s wife said she heard him returning to the house around sun-up, which was at 6 a.m. and the medical examiner said the murder occurred at virtually the same time between 5:30 and 6 a.m.?

Questioning the ex-wife
It was time now for the defense to question the credibility of  the witness at the center of the prosecution’s case, Ferris’s ex-wife.

The woman Ferris had married two days before the murder, Terri Igaz, took the stand. The defense attempted to portray her as an ex-wife with an axe to grind—who had, before changing her story, once provided Ferris with an airtight alibi for the morning of the murder.

But two days later, she went back to police with new details, including claims that Ferris had left the home and returned with blood on his clothes.

Hansen: She told police at one point that this may have all happened in a dream of hers.Willman: Yeah that’s correct. Hansen: What does that say about her credibility as a witness?Willman: I think it sinks it!

The defense rested its case. But before the judge would send the jury to deliberate, prosecutors would get one last chance to explain why science could still show that Gabriel Ferris was the real killer.

The defense had raised the question: How could Gabriel Ferris, a natural blonde with a normal sperm count, have raped and murdered Cheryl Miller when forensic experts working the case back in 1974 had told detectives to look for a dark-haired killer who was sterile?

Prosecutors had a chance to explain. And in the age of CSI, when so many believe that criminal science is infallible, and that the evidence always points to the “guilty,” the state was about to admit that the original detectives and scientists on the case misread the evidence and followed the wrong leads.

First to the stand: The former crime lab scientist who had examined the hairs found on the victim’s body. Even though for years he had told police they were looking for a dark-haired killer, similar to original suspects Esfehani and Alverez, he now said that the Miller could have picked up hairs on her body from a rug. In other words, prosecutors now argued that those dark hairs found on the body, long thought to have been left by the killer did not come from the killer at all. The expert testified the hairs were not pulled out in a fierce struggle, but had been left behind by people who’d simply been in the house, and shed the hairs naturally. And when Cheryl Miller struggled with the killer, the expert testified, the hairs came off the rug and stuck to her body. As further proof the hairs came from the rug and not the killer, some of the hairs, he testified, came from an animal.

But what about the startling defense claim that the killer was sterile… and Ferris was not?

Prosecutors now had a new explanation for that evidence as well. Saginaw County’s Chief Medical examiner testified that the pathologist who told police they were looking for a sterile killer 30 years before was simply wrong. In fact, the medical examiner testified that the substance was not even semen at all, but came from the victim instead.

And that conclusion was backed up by another scientist who’d examined slides of the substance taken from the victim’s body.

Prosecutors wanted to put Ferris in prison for life without parole. In order to do that, they had to convict him of what in Michigan is called ‘felony murder’ --  a murder committed during the course of a felony, in this case, rape.

The question for prosecutors: without semen, how could they prove that a rape even occurred?

"If the rapist doesn’t ejaculate, you have no semen sample. In this case our supposition was that Mr. Ferris was choking Cheryl Miller to get her to participate in this act, and he killed her and in that instance he may very well have lost the desire to complete the act," says Saginaw county prosecuting attorney Michael Thomas.

Countering the prosecution
The defense had one last chance to respond, blasting the prosecution experts. First, the medical examiner who disputed findings by the original pathologist— now dead— that the killer was sterile.

Defense attorney Willman defends the original medical examiner: "Who you gonna believe? You gonna believe some guy they’re gonna bring in 30 years later, saying 'Hey this clown must have been mistaken?' Or are you gonna believe the guy who’s done thousands of autopsies, who actually saw it? the man who took it out of the woman’s body? He knew what he had. He knew it was semen!"

And finally, the defense closed its case by asking jurors this question: If there was such a violent struggle… how come none of Gabriel Ferris’s hairs ended up on the victim’s body?

For Moran, this doesn't make sense. "When you have a violent struggle with an especially hairy defendant, you would expect to find at least some of his hair at the scene. And you wouldn’t expect that all of the hair found on the body is dark hair, which doesn’t match her and it doesn’t match him."

Each side had made its arguments. It was now time for the jury  to decide if Gabriel Ferris would walk free or spend the rest of his life behind bars.

When closing statements began in the Gabriel Ferris murder trial, prosecutors felt they had proven that Ferris was a man capable of leaving his honeymoon bed on the shores of Lake Huron and driving 65 miles, for a rendezvous with ex-girlfriend Cheryl Miller; a meeting that ended in murder.

Jeff Stroud, assistant prosecutor: Over time, years, evidence keep pointing to Gabe Ferris. Not Tony Alverez. Not Abbass Esfehani. Gabe Ferris.

But the defense disagreed and insisted that the prosecution’s theory made no sense. That even though, admittedly, Ferris had been a scoundrel, sleeping with Cheryl Miller in the days before his wedding to another woman, there is no evidence that he killed her.

Soon the fate of Gabriel Ferris was in the hands of the jurors. Among them: a retired mechanical engineer, a pipefitter, and a marketing executive.

Hansen: What was that first vote?Juror 1: Two undecided, four not guilty, and six guilty.

Some jurors wondered how so much of the physical evidence found at the crime scene, could point away from Ferris, and toward other suspects.

Hansen: I mean it seems like everybody else’s hair was there besides his.Juror 2: That was a definite question I think in a lot of the jurors’ minds.

But to the jurors, the testimony of Ferris’s ex-wife, testimony that had changed repeatedly over the years, struck a chord.

Hansen: The defense has suggested that she had it out for Gabe Ferris.Juror 3: She very well may have, but I don’t think that had anything to do with this case.Hansen: How credible was Ferris’s ex-wife to you?Juror 3: Very credible. She didn’t waiver.

And jurors also focused on incriminating statements witnesses said Ferris made, like the woman who testified he said “I didn’t mean to do it.”

Juror 4: Why would a person do that if they’re innocent? I just don’ didn’t add up to me.

For Cheryl Miller’s aunt, who sat through every day of the trial, the thought of Ferris being set free was too much to take. "I don’t believe I have ever been so anxious in my life. Like up and down, and pacing the halls."

But on just the second day of deliberations, jurors sent word to the judge.

The jury had come together. And as they awaited the verdict, it might be an understatement to say that Gabriel Ferris and his defense attorney were anticipating good news. According to Willman, Ferris was even talking about buying a sailboat.

Gabe Ferris was found guilty. He Ferris would remain behind bars.

"I think justice has been done in this case," says prosecuting attorney Michael Thomas.

"I think I let some kind of a yell out of me," says Duquette, Cheryl Miller's aunt. "And the tears began to come down my face. ‘Thank god,’ that’s what was going through my mind."

In June 2004,  almost 30 years to the day after Cheryl Miller’s body was found, Gabriel Ferris was sentenced to life in prison without parole— exactly what he deserves, Cheryl’s aunt says, for everything he put the family through.

"He killed Cheryl. He left Cheryl's parents in pain for the rest of their natural lives," says Duquette. "That's an unforgivable thing too."

Gabriel Ferris continues to maintain his innocence, and is appealing his conviction, arguing that despite the jury’s verdict, the evidence fails to establish that he’s guilty of any crime.